Jihadi John Unmasked: Did U.K. Security Agencies Play a Role in ISIS Militant's Radicalization?

StoryMarch 05, 2015
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Asim Qureshi

research director at the London-based prisoner advocacy group, CAGE.

We look at the strange case of the man nicknamed Jihadi John, the Islamic State militant seen in the beheading videos of James Foley and Steven Sotloff. Last week, press accounts identified him as a Londoner named Mohammed Emwazi who was originally from Kuwait. Emwazi moved to Britain as a child and studied computer science at the University of Westminster. The story has touched off a debate in Britain over policing and monitoring of potential threats. How did Emwazi go from being a university student in Britain to being the face of the Islamic State? Did British security services play a role in his radicalization? We are joined by Asim Qureshi of the British prisoner group CAGE, who knew Emwazi until he left Britain for good in 2012.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: We turn now to the case of the Islamist militant nicknamed "Jihadi John." He first came to prominence in beheading videos released by the Islamic State. We’ll have that clip for you in a moment. Last week, press accounts identified the man known as Jihadi John as a Londoner named Mohammed Emwazi who was originally from Kuwait. Emwazi moved to Britain as a child and studied computer science at the University of Westminster. The story has touched off a debate in Britain over policing and monitoring of potential threats. A big question remains over when and how Emwazi became radicalized. According to British government accounts, Emwazi was a member of a network in contact with one of the men convicted of trying to bomb the London Underground in 2005. He was also believed to be part of a group involved in procuring funds and equipment "for terrorism-related purposes" in Somalia.

AMY GOODMAN: But the prisoner advocacy group, CAGE, has presented a different side of the story. They say Emwazi became radicalized after years of harassment by British security agencies who attempted to recruit him as a spy. In 2009, Emwazi approached CAGE after he was detained and interrogated by the British intelligence agency, MI5, on what he called a safari vacation in Tanzania. In 2010, after Emwazi was barred from returning to Kuwait, he wrote, quote, "I had a job waiting for me and marriage to get started. But now I feel like a prisoner, only not in a cage, in London," he wrote. CAGE posted audio of Emwazi recounting an interrogation by a British agent in 2009. In the recording, Emwazi describes how he condemned 9/11 and the deadly July 7, 2005, attacks on the London subway.

MOHAMMED EMWAZI: I looked at him face to face now, and then he looked at me, and he said, "Mohammed?" I said, "Yes?" He goes, "What do you think of 7/7?" I said, "Man, innocent people have died, man. What do you think? I think this is extremism." He said, "OK, what do you think of the war in Afghanistan?" I said, "What do I think? You know, we see the news. Innocent people are getting killed." Then he started telling me, "What do you think of 9/11?" I told him, "This is a wrong thing. What happened was wrong. You know, what do you want me to say? If I had the opportunity for those lives to come back, then I would make those lives come back. You know, I don’t think there’s—I think what happened is wrong."

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Mohammed Emwazi, speaking to CAGE. And this is a video of him last year in a beheading video released by the Islamic State.

MOHAMMED EMWAZI: I’m back, Obama, and I’m back because of your arrogant foreign policy towards the Islamic State, because of your insistence on continuing your bombings in Amerli, Zumar and the Mosul Dam, despite our serious warnings. You, Obama, have yet again, through your actions, killed yet another American citizen. So just as your missiles continue to strike our people, our knife will continue to strike the necks of your people

AMY GOODMAN: To find out more about Mohammed Emwazi, we go to London to speak with Asim Qureshi, research director at CAGE. He had been in regular contact with Emwazi ’til he left Britain in 2012.

Asim, welcome to Democracy Now! When you heard that video, you know, well before he was identified by security, did you wonder if it was Emwazi, since you knew him?

ASIM QURESHI: No, I didn’t have any idea it was him until the reporter from The Washington Post suggested to me that the two men might be the same and then played me the video. Then, I felt that there was some striking similarities between. But even then, I couldn’t be certain.

AMY GOODMAN: So tell us who Mohammed Emwazi was, when you came to know him, and tell us the story that he told you of what was happening to him over the years.

ASIM QURESHI: Sure, absolutely. Look, what we have to remember is that when Ethiopia invaded Somalia at the end of 2006, beginning of 2007, what happened was that the U.K. security agencies made some assumptions about the threats that might be posed to the U.K., so they started becoming worried about those people who hailed from the Horn of Africa region, but also those who were traveling to that region, as well. So what you saw was a large number of men, who were traveling to, for example, Kenya or Tanzania or other countries nearby, being stopped. For those Somalis who were even traveling to Somalia, young men, they were also getting stopped, as well, and questioned a great deal. What was happening on the streets of London was that MI5 and other kind of members of the security apparatus were going—combing through these communities, suggesting to these individuals that they thought they were extremists or that they thought that they had acquaintances that were problematic, but also trying to recruit them to spy, to turn—to become spies within their communities. So this was the environment that had been created post-2007.

Now, when Mohammed Emwazi and his two friends went to Tanzania, they went very much in that environment, as well. And while they were there in Tanzania, they’re detained by the Tanzanian authorities, who tell them that "We were told to stop you by the British and send you back." They’re then deported back to Holland, where they had a transit, and then subsequently on to the U.K. But both in the Netherlands, where they were stopped, and in the U.K., they were questioned by British security officials from MI5. And, you know, a lot of those conversations were quite strange for these young men. So, in the case of Mohammed Emwazi, they were obviously trying to suggest that he was trying to go to al-Shabab in Somalia. Mohammed’s response was: "There’s an entire country, Kenya, that’s between Tanzania and Somalia. You know, like, how could you be suggesting such a thing about me?" I mean, this is obviously from what he was telling me.

But then, what I think really convinced Mohammed that this was some kind of fishing expedition and a way of trying to turn him as an individual, they said, "Look, Mohammed, we’ve spoken to your fiancée in Kuwait. We’ve spoken to her family. You know, we’ve met them, and, you know, they know about the fact that you’re on our radar," and whatever else. So, MI5’s questioning resulted in his engagement having been broken off. But, I mean, specifically what it told Mohammed was that, well, actually, they knew all along that I had no intention to go to al-Shabab, because they knew that I was trying to build a future for myself, a life for myself in Kuwait.

And then, after this whole period where he comes back to the U.K., then what happens is that, you know, first, he tells me the story of what happened there with the deportation from Tanzania, but then he gets in contact because whatever efforts he’s making to build a life for himself in Kuwait are being stopped, you know, on the face of it, by the Kuwaiti authorities, but from information he received from Kuwait, it was at the behest of the British. At no point was he ever arrested or charged with any crimes. And, you know, at the moment, we still haven’t seen any actual evidence to suggest he had ever been involved in any wrongdoing.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Asim, when did he, Mohammed Emwazi, first get in touch with you? It was in 2009? And you maintained a correspondence with him ’til 2012, is that right?

ASIM QURESHI: That’s correct, yes. You know, and once again, that correspondence, you know, we published it online on the CAGE website. You can see that he’s trying to use all the mechanisms of state in order to change the situation that he has. He was—he did work out in Kuwait for about an eight-month period. But when his father requested he come back to the U.K. for a week in order to help him with some family matters, when he tried to return to Kuwait, that’s when this block happened. So we put him in touch with lawyers. We put him in touch with politicians, to his embassy, you know, tried to encourage him to use diplomatic means to get this resolved. We even introduced him to a journalist in order to publicly raise awareness about, you know, the difficulties he was having. And what’s really, really interesting about all of that communication is how willing he is, in order to try and use the mechanisms of state, to bring about a change in his situation. You know, I think—and that’s something that hasn’t been really focused on here in the U.K., at least within the media. But this is a young man who didn’t just let it go. He was trying very, very hard to bring about a change in his situation within the confines of the law.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s return to the words of Mohammed Emwazi, or Jihadi John. In this section of the audio that your group released, CAGE, he recounts what he said when he—when asked his opinion about—his opinion about Jews, as well as Islam. He also explains how the agent responded at the end of the interrogation.

MOHAMMED EMWAZI: And then he’s asking me, "What do you think of the Jews?" just like [inaudible]. I told him, "Look, they’re a religion. Everyone has got his right to his own belief. I can’t—I don’t force no one." So he’s just trying to—he wants to know about my background, about my Aqidah, my creed, in Islam. So, I told him, "This is how Islam is. We don’t force anyone to come into religion. You know, everyone’s got their own right." And I don’t think—I don’t believe—and I told him everything that’s been happening is extreme. And anything that bombs they’re all from extremists. And then—and then, so after all of this, he came back, and he looked at me, and he said, "I still believe that you’re going to Somalia to train." I said, "After what I just told you, after, you know, I told you that what’s happening is extremism, this and that, and you’re still suggesting that I’m an extremist?" And he said, "Yeah," and he just started, you know, going on, forcing—trying to put words into my mouth, saying, "No, you’re doing this, this, this and this, and we’re going to keep a close eye on you, Mohammed. We already have been. We’re going to keep a close eye on you," threatening me. And, you know, I just went out.

AMY GOODMAN: So that was a recording that CAGE made with Mohammed Emwazi when you were first talking to him. If you could comment on that? And then, what happened in 2012? You said you were in, you know, email contact with him. You were corresponding with him. Did he just abruptly stop? And was this was the point where he went on to the—to ISIS?

ASIM QURESHI: Well, the reason why Mohammed and his friends first came to me was because they had seen our involvement in raising the profiles of other individuals within his community that had been harassed, for the reasons that I set out already. You know, so they came to us. And at that time, you know, speaking to them, meeting them, I found that these young men seemed to be very, very genuine about their indignation about the way that they had been treated. They genuinely were giving me the impression, at least, that a wrongdoing had happened against them. You know, it didn’t seem contrived at all, in any way. So this was, I think, quite important—for me, at least, anyway—that I felt like these were young men who needed help, they needed assistance, and who also wanted to register and log their story, because they had seen what was happening with others in their community, as well. So that was, you know, quite important.

And, you know, key to that was this idea that I never actually felt any kind of—them expressing any opinions or any beliefs that I thought, well, you know, that’s a bit controversial, or that’s unlawful in some way, or that might speak to a certain mindset, especially a mindset that would, you know, further down the line, potentially, go and join the Islamic State. I didn’t see any of those markers. And I’m somebody who’s dealing with the Muslim community all the time. People are very honest with me about their opinions, about what they believe in, even those who are sympathetic to ISIS and who are critical against the approaches that I take, which is to kind of work within the law and work within the system. They don’t have any difficulty in expressing their views and beliefs to me. So, you know, I don’t think that these young men were being contrived in any way.

But, I mean, going forward, that email communication happens for quite some time, until January 2012, which is the last time I met him. But, you know, I’m not sure why it is that he didn’t come back to me again after that, because it’s not until August 2013 that he actually leaves the U.K. But even in that one-and-a-half-year period, he’s still trying to make efforts behind the scenes, which I was to find out later from the family.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: I’d like to ask about your exchange earlier this week with London Mayor Boris Johnson on his LBC phone-in show. The mayor criticized your position on Mohammed Emwazi. This is part of what he said.

MAYOR BORIS JOHNSON: I really—I really, really think that the focus of your indignation and your outrage should be on people who go out to join groups that throw gays off cliffs, that behead people who don’t subscribe to their version of Islam, that glorify in the execution of innocent journalists and aid workers. They should be the object of your wrath, not the security services, who are trying to keep us safe.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: That was London’s mayor, Boris Johnson, speaking earlier this week to you. So, could you respond to what he said? And also, you say that when you spoke to and you were in touch with Mohammed Emwazi, you saw no indications, no markers of a potential radicalization. So, in your view, what happened in that period of time? Because it’s quite a dramatic shift then from 2009 to 2014 and where we ended up seeing him go.

ASIM QURESHI: I mean, to deal with the statement by the London mayor, Boris Johnson, first, you know, we feel that our position hasn’t been understood. We have a great deal of indignation for anybody who has carried out acts of arbitrary detention, torture, rendition, extrajudicial killings, you know, wherever they—if that includes ISIS, then, yes, for them. If that includes Jihadi John, then, yes, you know, that is our position. But that includes everybody. Our work started with the orange jumpsuits in Guantánamo Bay and our desire to see an end to—you know, to see an end of the Geneva Conventions being flaunted by the U.S. government. So when we saw those same orange jumpsuits being used by ISIS in Iraq, we felt like we had a responsibility, as a consequence of the war on terror, to speak out where we felt that there were wrongdoings taking place. So I think that the London mayor has really tried to fudge the issue.

What we want to know about the security agencies is there is a period that Mohammed Emwazi is in the U.K. where he feels like he is constantly under threat, that he is constantly being harassed. And his communications, not only with me, but also with the reporter who he was having other email exchanges with, you know, they really show and speak to a certain mindset that, you know, increasingly, he was of the opinion that he had no place to belong in this society. And that’s the question that we at CAGE are asking, you know, that in this period, what is it about his interactions with the security agencies that made him feel like he did not belong? And the reason why we want to ask that question is because if that contributed to him leaving the U.K. and then trying to find a sense of belonging elsewhere—say, for example, with the Islamic State—then we want to learn lessons from that, so our youth here in the U.K. don’t repeat that process if they’re going through similar forms of harassment.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, let me ask you something. It’s not only the London mayor who has attacked CAGE, as you raise these questions, but Amnesty International said earlier this week it’s considering severing links with CAGE. John Dalhuisen, Amnesty’s director for Europe and Central Asia, put out a statement saying, "We are currently undergoing a review of our policy regarding any future association with the group Cage." In 2010, Gita Sahgal left a senior position at Amnesty over the group’s association with your group, with CAGE. Following this controversy over Jihadi John, Sahgal said, quote, "This is active promotion of a certain form of jihadism. There was an atmosphere where you were basically bound to see these not simply as people who were facing human rights violations, but people who should be listened to and followed. That’s very disturbing." Can you respond to what she said?

ASIM QURESHI: I mean, you know, that’s completely incorrect and, you know, trying to mischaracterize what we’re trying to do here and the very important points that we’re trying to raise. Gita Sahgal has always tried to attack the personalities rather than taking on the issues that we’re raising and the very important points that we’re trying to make.

I mean, in terms of Amnesty International, of course, you know, Amnesty is an organization that we’ve worked with closely in the past. We’ve worked with them on a number of different projects. But it’s up to them whether or not they wish to continue working with us. As for us, we’re going to just carry on doing our work, working with our communities that do feel that they are being placed under undue suspicion, that are being abused by many different apparatus of the state. And so, we have a responsibility to them to keep on working. If others wish to work cooperatively with us, then, you know, we welcome them, whoever they are, you know, whichever part of society they come from.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Asim, were you surprised that Mohammed Emwazi is Jihadi John?

ASIM QURESHI: I mean, at the moment, it’s still an allegation, and I really hope it turns out to be untrue. But if it is, then, yeah, I’m not just surprised. It, you know, really saddens me, and I’m quite, quite disgusted by that.

AMY GOODMAN: Asim Qureshi, I want to thank you for being with us, research director at the London-based prisoner advocacy group, CAGE, joining us from London.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we go back 40 years, 1971, more than 40 years, to the uprising at Attica, but we also look at what is happening at that prison today—the beating of a young prisoner, who was almost beaten the death in 2011. Today, just before the prison guards’ trial, they pleaded guilty. They will not serve time in jail. Stay with us.

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